As these things often do, the curiosity began with a tweet.
Here are 10 #CFB teams w/lowest CBTN Margin of Error (% of plays resulting in TFL, sack, or TO) last 3 yrs:
— SportSource Analytics (@SportSourceA) February 19, 2021
Wonder how Nebraska ranked, I thought.
Not well, it turns out, but that was probably expected by anyone who’s watched them play under head coach Scott Frost. “The margin for error right now is razor thin,” has been a common refrain. Frost has alluded to it. Commentators on the program have talked about it.
A lot of the discourse has been around what Nebraska can’t afford to have happen if it’s going to have a successful offensive possession. When you have superstars, you can make up for mistakes. When you don’t, you have to execute. Northwestern lives this.
So has Nebraska for Frost’s first three years at the helm. It has had plenty of talent, but no one at the transcendent level. No one at the “superstar” level. Nebraska has had to play perfect at times.
The “we have a very slim margin for error” refrain is empirically supported, in case there was anyone wondering.
In the last three years, the Huskers have had an offensive play end in a turnover or a tackle for loss 11.9% of the time, a rate that ranks 101st among the 130 FBS programs.
In 2020, the clip was at 12.1%, which was 91st nationally (out of 127 programs) and 11th in the Big Ten.
In 2019, it was at 12.3%, which was 109th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten.
In 2018, it was at 11.4%, which was 91st nationally and 12th in the Big Ten.
I looked at Nebraska’s drive data last season to see this borne out a little more. Twenty-three possessions had an offensive flag thrown during them in 2020, and the Huskers only scored touchdowns on three of those.
Nebraska had nearly as many drives that featured at least one play ending in a tackle for loss (43) as drives that featured none (46). On clean possessions, Nebraska averaged 2.37 points per drive. On drives that had a Husker tackled in the backfield, Nebraska averaged 1.56 points per drive.
While I’m not entirely sure what the working time frame is here, ESPN’s David Hale had some context on what to expect from clean drives across the board.
This is something you probably understand intuitively, but defensive penalties are MUCH worse for a team than offensive ones.
no off. penalty: 2.27
1 off. penalty: 2.12
2+ off. penalty: 2.03
no def penalty: 1.96
1 def penalty: 3.33
2+ def penalty: 4.26
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) February 16, 2021
Nebraska’s numbers are going to be below-average because Nebraska’s scoring was well below-average last season, but in this case the gap is interesting. If Nebraska had a flag thrown on its offense during a possession, that drive yielded just 1.57 points on average.
What’s the fix here?
It’s easy to say Nebraska just needs to execute better, but that can be said for any team in the country. These are college football players at the end of the day, so perfect games are going to be hard to come by regularly. Nebraska does need to execute better, but that’s not the only thing that gives an offense its ability to make up for blunders.
This is why Frost wants weapons.
And I think he has the guys to fix this already on campus.
Omar Manning is one. Yes, I still have high hopes for Manning.
Zavier Betts is another.
Thomas Fidone is another.
Nebraska’s wide receiver play has been so poor in recent years, it has to get better at some point, and you’d think a full year under his belt for wideout coach and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick will allow him to make strides he couldn’t a season ago. Spicy take: Lubick could be a sneaky Broyles Award candidate in 2021.
The quarterback play has been the subject of barbs, and anyone without any confidence in the passing game will point to a quarterback who couldn’t make downfield throws a year ago. That’s fine, but Adrian Martinez also set a program record for season-long completion percentage last year.
We’ll see. Nebraska’s at a point in its rebuild where it needs to earn the benefit of the doubt, but I still think there’s a reasonable argument to make that Nebraska has added the offensive talent in recent years a good team needs to become great.